The NBA is interesting because during the regular season, fans and media members overreact to players’ performances and form their “player rankings”, only for the playoffs to come around and completely dismantle the aforementioned ranking system. I say this to make the point that when we TRULY think about who the best players in the world are, we need to heavily consider what they do in May, June and July as opposed to what they do when half of the teams are load managing.
For example, take a guy like Julius Randle. He made 3rd team All-NBA (as he should have) because he had a remarkable regular season, leading a Knicks team that played their hearts out in all 72 of their games and earned a 4 seed in the competitive Eastern Conference. However, when the playoffs came around and the intensity was heightened, Randle didn’t look like himself. He couldn’t overpower people in the paint anymore, he didn’t create as much space to shoot his mid-range, and he didn’t shoot the ball well from anywhere on the court. Randle is a great player, but he’s not a top 15 NBA player yet – not even close – and it’s because of what he’s done (or hasn’t done) in the most important games that an NBA player can play. Playoff games.
Note: When ranking the biggest playoff stock risers, I’m considering two main components: 1) How much better the player performs in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season and 2) How much more recognition a player gets during the playoffs as opposed to during the regular season (most often a result of a certain team not playing many nationally televised games or not playing in a big market, among other reasons).
5) Kevin Huerter
Kevin Huerter’s rise is definitely a testament in part to the 2nd ranking criteria. He plays in a small market (ATL) and is an unassuming, young player who was drafted in the same draft as Trae Young and therefore has been overshadowed in the early part of his career. However, this man can flat out BALL, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him flourish in these playoffs.
First of all, he’s 6-foot-7 and a good athlete. Yes, a good athlete. He gets super high on his jump shot, and it allows him to EASILY get shots up on shorter players, both out of the post and in the pick and roll. If you didn’t get a chance to watch ATL-PHI game 7, check out Huerter’s highlights from that game in which he absolutely exposes the Sixers (specifically Seth Curry) in the mid-range. He doesn’t just have the pull-up in his bag, though, he also has an underrated handle which allows him to get to multiple different spots on the court.
We’ve seen him defended by some of the best defenders in the league during these playoffs (Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons) and still be able to handle the rock under pressure and physicality. The ability to get to spots in the mid-range and rise up to hit shots consistently is something that’s sustainable to build an offensive game around (we’ve seen guys like Beal, Booker, Durant, Middleton, and MANY OTHERS do it already), and Huerter is in an excellent position to do it as well, especially considering he’s only 22 years old.
Huerter has also shown a solid ability to make plays for others. He has a high level understanding of offense and is always decisive and confident in his moves and passes, allowing him to be a secondary playmaker for the Hawks during this postseason. If you diligently watched the Hawks this postseason, you’ve probably seen a few of his cross court, lefty passes off the dribble. That’s high level stuff. Finally, Huerter plays on BOTH ENDS of the court! He’s shown some incredible fight while having to defend the likes of Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and many other talented offensive players. He’s just a really good athlete with long arms who plays his butt off on that end and isn’t afraid to be physical and put his body on the line.
4) Cameron Payne
Cam Payne’s first claim to fame in the NBA was for his pregame dance routines with Russell Westbrook. Also, he was literally playing in China two years ago, and on multiple D-League and G-League teams before that, so it’s safe to say he definitely wasn’t on the average NBA fan’s radar prior to this postseason. He’s had an unbelievable turnaround, though, and he is about to get absolutely paid when he becomes a free agent next season.
Payne has this special bounce in his step that I haven’t really seen before; he looks like he could be shot out of a cannon at any point and glide his way to the hoop. He’s also got a really nice floater game around the basket, and he can finish athletically with both hands and with control of his body at the rim. He pairs this with fantastic vision and a 6 foot 7 (!) wingspan, which makes him an unbelievable offensive threat.
Before Game 6 of the WCF (where CP3 assured all doubters that he is indeed the Point God), there was a very persuasive case to be made that Cam Payne had been more effective than Chris Paul against LAC. This is because when CP3 was out of the lineup due to COVID-19, Payne took his game to a whole new level. We saw a confidence and comfortability that we hadn’t seen before with him, probably because he finally got the start and played big, important minutes. I had thought that maybe he would lose that bounce in his step over the course of a 48-minute game if he was tasked with playing starting point guard minutes. Perhaps, I had thought, he was only that energetic because he comes in for 6-minute bursts. Well, I was dead wrong. Payne was as spry as he’s looked throughout these entire playoffs in Games 1 and 2 of the WCF against LAC, and it has most definitely earned him a starting point guard spot in his near future, whether it be with Phoenix or another team.
He’s going to get offered big money from an organization in free agency, much like Terry Rozier was offered a massive contract by the Hornets after his huge playoff performance with the Celtics in their 2018 playoff run to the conference finals. Payne has proven himself to be an impact player who deserves a firm spot in an NBA starting lineup, as well as a much larger contract than his current one (two years, $2.1 million). The days of Cam Payne being “the guy who dances” are over, and he’s here to stay. He’ll be dancing ON the court from now on…
3) Dillon Brooks
I must admit that I’m definitely considering the play-in games in conjunction with the playoff games when ranking these players, whether that’s logical or not. But guess what? I’m writing the article, so there’s unfortunately nothing you can do about it, unless you’d like to leave me a nasty comment at the bottom of this article.
If Brooks and the Grizzlies had somehow found a way to surpass the Jazz, and Brooks had continued playing the way he was, there’s a very real possibility that Brooks would have been number one on this list. The Dillon Brooks that we saw in both the play-ins and the play-offs is a two-way STUD that we didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing during the regular season nearly enough due to him playing in Memphis and therefore being overshadowed by both Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas, not to mention playing in a small market.
He’s got one of the better motors I’ve seen in the NBA, and it allows him to be a pest on defense like not many others can. He guards the best player on the other team in virtually every game Memphis plays, and he WANTS IT, too. He loves the competition, he loves getting in your grill and making you miserable for 94 feet, and he loves being physical. In other words, his game (specifically on the defensive end) is tailor-made to the playoffs.
On the offensive end, Brooks showed unbelievable strides in his skillset during the playoffs. He’s 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, and he’s got a surprisingly polished offensive game. Like Huerter, he has a solid handle and can get to his spots in the mid-range and just rise up, which allows him to shoot over defenders with ease. He’s a lot stronger going to the hoop than Huerter, though, and he’s got a real knack for finishing around the rim with a number of different push-type shots with both hands.
Finally, he can hit the three-point shot, which forces defenses to guard him on the perimeter, therefore opening up room for Brooks to attack the paint. If Brooks continues his development on the offensive end, I really think he can turn into one of the best two-way players in the NBA. He averaged 25.8 points in this postseason against a very solid Jazz defense, and there’s no question he’s already one of the toughest perimeter defenders to go up against in the league. He’s only going to continue to improve, and he’s a name that you’re going to hear in the All-Star conversation next year.
2) Trae Young
If you had any gripe with Trae Young being considered a superstar before the playoffs, you can no longer have that gripe. I mean, you can, you would just be very wrong. Trae Young has a few offensive qualities that, when paired together, make him virtually impossible to stop. The first thing he has is a great shooting touch from range; you can’t leave him with a step, or else he’ll get his three off quickly and will kill you. This forces defenses to pick him up basically as soon as he walks over halfcourt (much like Curry or Lillard), and it forces them to go over screens as well.
The second thing that Trae possesses is an unbelievable first step – probably the best in basketball. His change of speed and ability to burst by the defense is second to none in the NBA, and when paired with his ability to shoot, it allows him to drive with incredible ease; he had the 3rd most drives per game in the entire NBA this season, which is pretty remarkable for a scrawny guy like Trae. Trae also has the best floater game in the NBA (by far). He takes and makes the most floaters in the league, and he doesn’t really need any space or time to get it off, which makes it quite lethal.
He’s also the best lob thrower in the NBA. His lob (the majority of the time to either Capela or Collins) looks exactly like his floater, too, so it makes the Hawks virtually impossible to defend once Trae gets in the painted area. When Trae throws the ball in the air, the defense is afraid to block it (because if it’s a floater, it could be called for goaltending), and that oftentimes results in an easy dunk for one of the athletic ATL front court players. When combining these three qualities (shooting touch, quick first step, and lethal floater/lob game), it makes Trae dominant offensively.
It doesn’t end there, though. Trae has that killer instinct, which I think many people were surprised by. People thought that once the pressure intensified as it does during the playoffs, Trae would have a hard time dealing with it. Instead, Trae used the defenses’ over-aggression to his advantage, blowing by the opposition and either getting fouled or getting to his floater/lob game. He talked trash to opposing players, opposing fans, and literally anyone who was willing to listen to him. Against PHI, not only did he play against one of the meanest fanbases in the league, but he was defended primarily by Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, two incredibly tough and physical PLAYOFF defenders. He wasn’t phased in the slightest, and it was unbelievably fun to watch. Trae put the entire ATL team on his back throughout the entire playoffs, and he’s proven that he must be considered a top five NBA point guard.
1) Reggie Jackson
Two words: REGGIE. JACKSON. To say I love Reggie Jackson’s game would be an understatement. He’s only 6’3, but he has a ridiculous 7-foot wingspan (!), which he uses in multiple ways. First of all, he’s an excellent on-ball defender, and he was a large reason why the Clippers were able to essentially switch 1-5 throughout the entire playoffs; their point guard, who’s only 6’3, was able to guard large wing players and even smaller bigs with his freaky wingspan.
Offensively, Reggie Jackson was unbelievable. He averaged 18 points per game and shot better than 40% from three. He also made the most threes in these NBA playoffs. Yes, you read that correctly. Every time he shoots the ball, I think it’s going in; he has a nice, calm release, and he’s decisive in his shot attempts, never hesitating and always shooting with confidence. His long arms and great athletic ability allow him to be an amazing finisher at the rim, and he also has the ball on a string! He alternates between slow and quick movements with incredible speed, and he has an EXTENSIVE bag of tricks he can go into. Crossovers, between the legs, hesitations, behind the back, spins, different pick up combos – he has it all.
Diligent NBA fans kind of knew already that Reggie Jackson was a starter-level point guard, but I don’t think they thought he had this kind of star potential in him. Once Kawhi Leonard went down, Reggie stepped right into the secondary playmaker role behind Paul George, and he was able to be really successful throughout the playoffs in that expanded role. He hit SO MANY big shots during the Clippers run. Shots at the end of the shot clock. Shots when you’re down eight and the other team is on a 6-0 run. Shots to put the Clippers up five with one minute to go. Hitting big shot after big shot allowed Reggie Jackson to be the number one breakout player of these playoffs.
Without Kawhi, the Clippers were not expected to get past Utah, and they certainly weren’t expected to put up the fight they did against the Suns. This overperformance needs to be credited, in large part, to Reggie Jackson’s stellar play. Oh, and by the way, Reggie Jackson is on a veteran’s minimum contract. Not for long…
Image by Shawn Palmer
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